Earning a Master's in TESOL and ESL Online

A shrinking world is creating more opportunities for language teachers to work in local and international settings. Earning a master's degree qualifies teachers for positions in curriculum development and educational administration. Graduate education equips students with the qualifications to teach in high-paying international settings such as Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. Plus, classroom teachers can qualify for raises by earning a master's degree and for adjunct opportunities at community colleges. Due to the international popularity of ESL, many organizations offer resources, support, and financial aid to graduate students in this field.

Student Profile: Who Earns an Online Master's Degree in TESOL and ESL?

Those who love interacting with new people from other cultures and possess an upbeat, flexible approach to teaching can thrive in an ESL degree program. Some prospective ESL teachers are moving from the general classroom to more specialized roles in public or private education. Others want to put their degrees to use by serving international students in higher education. Many learners hope to teach abroad or work with companies that provide English language classes to their overseas employees.

Why Get a Master's Degree in TESOL and ESL?

Pursuing Specialization

ESL is commonly a specialization within a larger, broader education curriculum. Students who currently hold a teaching license can emphasize ESL within an M.Ed. while those seeking initial licensure as an ESL teacher can earn a master of art in teaching (MAT). Some schools, however, offer specializations within ESL such as language program administration, international education management, or linguistics. In general, TESOL programs usually emphasize teaching English language learners in the U.S. while ESL degrees focus on teaching in an international setting.

Career Advancement Opportunities

Holding a graduate degree can help a classroom teacher move into an engaging, higher-paying role in education such as teaching ESL. While openings for ESL teachers in public school and higher education classrooms are in decline nationally, areas of the U.S. with high immigrant populations still need ESL teachers. Furthermore, overseas ESL jobs and part-time positions teaching online continue to flourish. Some graduates use their degrees to work with international students at the university level.

Online Learning Technology

TESOL master's programs utilize online learning technology like threaded discussions, videos, and video conferencing. Learners submit their work through a system such as Turnitin, which conducts a plagiarism check, and teachers can monitor how often students are logging into the system to make sure no one is falling behind. Because of the international nature of an ESL program, communication technology is critical.

Prerequisites for Online TESOL and ESL Master's Programs

Beginning one of the ESL master's programs online often requires an academic background in education, a teaching license, and experience in the classroom. Admissions requirements vary by school, however.

  • Work Experience: Students who begin graduate school with work experience often have more real-world context for applying the research and theories discussed in class. In general, ESL master's programs online expect students to have classroom experience, but some schools offer admission to those who are new to the teaching profession.
  • Exams and Test Scores: Most applicants need to submit either GRE or MAT scores as part of their admission packets. Minimum scores vary by school, but the average MAT score stands at 400 and the average GRE score at 150 for verbal and 152 for quantitative. GRE and MAT scores remain valid for five years.
  • Coursework: Most master of arts in teaching programs do not require any specific background. A master of education, however, may require applicants to hold a teaching license and have an academic background in education. Some faith-based programs expect applicants to have taken courses in Bible or theology.
  • Recommendations: Applicants should expect to ask professors or supervisors to submit references that stress the applicant's ability to thrive in a graduate program. Most schools provide a form references can submit online or mail to the institution.
  • Essays: Nearly all TESOL master's programs require an essay as part of the application packet. Schools often provide a series of guiding questions, which usually emphasize work history, qualifications, and program alignment.
  • Interviews: Most master's programs no longer require interviews.
  • International Students: International students who hold an undergraduate degree from an institution outside the U.S. must demonstrate their school holds recognition with their country's ministry of education. These applicants also need to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language or another standardized test to provide evidence of English proficiency.

How Much Can I Make with a Master's Degree in TESOL and ESL?

By pursuing one of the ESL master's programs online students can specialize in teaching or enter an academic administrative position in a public or private school. Education professionals earn a median annual salary of $48,740, considerably higher than the national average, and educators who hold advanced degrees often earn more. Work experience coupled with foreign language skills such as Japanese or Spanish can help ESL teachers earn more money or advance in their careers.

Traditional Careers for Master's in TESOL and ESL Graduates

Career Stats Description

ESL Teacher

Median Pay: $41,141

Job Growth: 9%

Working with students at all levels, ESL teachers provide instruction in reading, writing, and speaking English to non-native English speakers. They often teach courses in American culture along with linguistics.

Ideal for: Successful ESL teachers have excellent communication skills, appropriate classroom management techniques, and strong cultural awareness.

Adult Literacy and High School Diploma Equivalency Teacher

Median Pay: $52,100

Job Growth: -5%

Adult literacy educators help adults earn their high school equivalency diplomas. These professionals teach reading, writing, and speaking in English along with other core content in community colleges, prisons, and other adult education settings.

Ideal for: Flexible, patient teachers with a practical streak and a flair for humor often do well in adult education.

Reading Specialist

Median Pay: $50,611

Job Growth: 9%

Working primarily with elementary and middle school students, reading specialists assist teachers with lesson development and execution, assess students for reading-related learning disabilities, and provide one-on-one instruction for students.

Ideal for: Effective reading teachers who enjoy applying research to real-life, have a deep knowledge of literacy, and are patient instructors.

Curriculum Director

Median Pay: $73,168

Job Growth: 9%

Curriculum directors develop educational guidelines for teachers, select school curricula, and train educational personnel in curriculum and instruction. These professionals serve as part of a school's leadership team.

Ideal for: Experienced teachers with excellent communication skills, deep knowledge of learning theory, and a knack for instruction and development may choose this path.

Nontraditional Careers for Master's in TESOL and ESL Graduates

Career Stats Description

Education Consultant

Median Pay: $62,634

Job Growth: 9%

Administering career path exams and providing students and parents with information about career choices, education consultants stay current on colleges, universities, the military, and other postsecondary career options.

Ideal for: Expert educators with a deep knowledge of their professions, good communication skills, and sound judgment often thrive as education consultants.

School Counselor

Median Pay: $55,410

Job Growth: 13%

School counselors work at all levels of education to assess student aptitudes and interests; develop and achieve career goals; and collaborate with teachers, parents, and administrators to help students succeed.

Ideal for: Friendly, authoritative people with good listening skills and a knack for assessing situations may find this career meaningful.

Special Education Teacher

Median Pay: $59,980

Job Growth: 8%

Working in public and private schools, special education teachers assess students, develop Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) teach students, evaluate learning, update IEPs, and meet with other professionals involved with special education students.

Ideal for: Creative, organized people who are calm, detail-oriented, and highly intuitive make excellent special education teachers.

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, PayScale, Projections Central

Paying for a Master's in TESOL and ESL Online

When considering online TESOL master's programs, future students should look at the overall cost of the degree. Total cost includes the number of required credits multiplied by tuition per credit, plus fees and expenses minus any discounts. Students should also subtract any scholarships or grants they receive. By shortening the timeline of their degrees, students can often reduce overall costs and get started in their new, better-paying career more quickly.

Subject-Specific Financial Aid, Grants, and Scholarships

Students can find scholarships for ESL master's programs online through their individual schools, along with resources from the U.S. government, nonprofit organizations, and foundations. Applicants can search many national scholarships including those in the list below.

What to Expect from Online TESOL and ESL Master's Programs

ESL master's programs online usually require 30-39 credits and take two to three years to complete. Full-time students may complete the degree in less time than part-time learners. Once enrolled, students focus on linguistics, developing curriculum, or teaching in the ESL classroom. Some degrees require an emphasis on curriculum and instruction while others focus on the sociolinguistic and sociopolitical dimensions of language learning and teaching. Typically, an ESL master's degree concludes with a research project that explores theories or applications of second language learning.

Major Milestones

  1. Core Courses

    Students enroll in the fundamental courses of the discipline, such as language development and bilingual evaluation. In some schools, students may need to enroll in prerequisite courses in order to take the core coursework.

  2. Concentration Courses

    Sometimes, ESL is a concentration within a broader master's in education. At other times, a master's in TESOL permits students to engage in concentrations such as teaching, curriculum development, or elementary learners.

  3. Internship

    ESL master's programs online usually require an internship during which students teach course sessions under the direction of a licensed or experienced educator. Degrees leading to certification may have more stringent internship requirements.

  4. Research

    Students in a TESOL master's program often complete a course in academic research and writing, out of which emerges a capstone project. This course introduces academic resources, critical reading strategies, and professional writing skills.

  5. Comprehensive Examination

    A comprehensive exam usually combines an oral assessment and a written test to evaluate the skills and knowledge gained over the course of an ESL master's online. The exam covers language acquisition, teaching strategies, and sociocultural dimensions of ESL.

  6. Capstone

    An ESL master's degree culminates in a capstone project. While requirements differ by school, a capstone usually emerges out of a research methodology course sequence and focuses on a powerful question in the field.


ESL master's programs online differ in their curricular structure depending on the school and the program's focus. In general, however, these degrees include courses in linguistics, classroom strategies, and pedagogy for the English language learner.

Assessing English-Learners

Students begin with a practical and theoretical study of assessment tools for linguistically and culturally diverse learners before designing both formal and informal evaluation methods to measure students' development and achievement. In this course, students also consider ways to use assessment data in placement, instruction, and support.

Language Acquisition

Beginning with how healthy children acquire their first language, this course examines the rudiments of language acquisition including syntax, morphology, phonetics and phonology, and semantics and the lexicon along with socio-cultural influences.

Language and Culture in the Classroom

Learners consider the social and cultural contexts of language in the ESL classroom by exploring topics such as language vitality, social factors of language, identity, and issues of globalization. The goal is to understand the effect language has on culture.


Students in this course explore linguistic theory by looking at the foundational properties that all languages share alongside the differences between languages. Topics include structure, expression, composition, and the cultural use of language.

Strategies and Materials for Teaching English-Learners

This course focuses on methods, strategies, and instructional models for engaging English learners in language-focused classes and in other content areas. Students also consider English language strategies for non-English speaking students in special needs classrooms.

Requirements to Practice

Completing a TESOL master's degree is often just the first step in an ESL career. Teachers can serve in U.S. classrooms, in community colleges, at research universities, in overseas schools, and in language centers throughout the world. ESL is an in-demand field where the best jobs go to those with proper certification. For U.S. public schools, it is usually a state teacher licensure, and for overseas language centers, it is typically a CELTA or DELTA.

  • State ESL Teacher Certification: Each state establishes its own requirements ESL teachers must meet in order to teach in that state's public schools. Typically, this means a bachelor's degree or master's degree in the field plus a passing grade on the relevant PRAXIS II exam.
  • National Board Certification: National Board Certification recognizes the most accomplished teachers in U.S. K-12 settings. ESL teachers can earn board certification by passing the required assessments and portfolio component. Teachers pay $75 for each of the four components plus $475 for the total assessment.
  • CELTA: Recognized worldwide, the CELTA is Cambridge English's fundamental certification for English teachers. It focuses on a blend of theory and coursework. Students spend 120 hours studying at one of more than 300 centers in 70 countries. Costs range from $1,500 to $4,000.
  • DELTA: Offered by Cambridge English, the DELTA goes to teachers with a CELTA plus one year of experience who pass three modules consisting of an exam, coursework, and an assignment. Students focus on teaching young learners, teenagers, or adults. Courses can range from $2,500 to $3,000.

Professional Organizations and Resources

Next to earning a master's in ESL, joining a professional membership organization may be the most important step a TESOL teacher can take. These associations publish the latest research, offer career-boosting webinars, provide online teacher toolboxes, and create forums for professional networking. New teachers can meet seasoned professionals from around the world at conferences and in online groups. Taking a leadership role or publishing in a journal can also enhance a resume.

  • Modern Language Association: With more than 25,000 members in 100-plus countries, the MLA equips English and foreign language teachers through 156 forums, 50 membership committees, four major periodicals, and more.
  • TESOL International Association: TESOL teachers can advance their careers by joining its organization thanks to its conventions, online courses, certification programs, published research, and online career center. The association also offers an online bookstore.
  • International Language Testing Association: Language assessment scholars and practitioners can join the ILTA to take advantage of the association's national conference, its current research in the field, and its network of testing professionals.
  • American Educational Research Association: This well-established organization helps improve the educational process through its scholarly commitment to education and evaluation. Members can attend events, gain access to research, and attend professional development conferences.
  • American Association for Applied Linguistics: This professional society welcomes scholars from 50 countries who work in various fields of applied linguistics. Members can attend an annual conference, compete for awards, and receive the Annual Review of Applied Linguistics.
  • Christian English Language Educators Association: Christians with an interest in TESOL can take advantage of a jobs board, a conference, publications, and the opportunity to network through a ListServ by joining this organization.
  • International Association for Language Learning Technology: The IALLT is a professional organization that equips foreign language teachers with appropriate instructional technology skills through a conference, a journal, and management manuals along with regional groups and webinars.